Selected Modern Chinese Essays: A Place Without Autumn Insects

By Ye Shengtao

Not a single blade of green grass beyond the doorsteps, nor a single butterfly outside the window. It is a place even more dry and dull than a pigeon house. The advent of autumn has vaguely reminded me of the season’s insects once again chirping plaintively. However, so far none of it is heard. All I hear late at night is the din from the houses in the neighbourhood — crying of babies, hubbub of grown-ups and confused noise of music and song. And all I hear in the early morning is the rumble of vehicles on the stone pavements and the simultaneous yo-ho of labourers on the streets. You hear no insects chirping however you try, by leaning your head on the pillow, over the window, or against the wall. Not because, drowned by the overwhelming din of merry-making or suffering, it has thus become inaudible, but because this place is utterly devoid of autumn insects. O a place leaving no room for autumn insects! Or rather a place where the insects themselves disdain to stay!

At a time like this, if I were in the lowly countryside, I would hear insects all around me. There peace and tranquillity prevail day and night. All living beings, whether moving or at rest, stand to enjoy life in their own way. In the daytime, the sun shining warm and cozy with thin clouds floating over the fields, while during the night, the moon and stars hanging bright in the sky with soft breezes cooling the air. The only thing capable of affecting our mood then and there is the chorus by insects. Their performance, with a voice high or low, sonorous or piping, quick or slow, sustained or suspended, is flawless and skilful, as if they had undergone thorough training under a music master. In fact, each and every one of them is a consummate music master all by itself. As a constellation of fine artists, they each give full play to their unique talent. No wonder their performance has reached the peak of artistic perfection. It makes toilers sigh with feeling, old forgotten scholars grieve over their luckless past, lonely travellers murmur moodily and solitary women weep silent tears. All that makes for the highest state of beauty on earth and natural poetry of super excellence. Not only does it intrigue onlookers, but also brings a bitter feeling to the party concerned. Such a feeling is, to a certain extent, of profound significance.

Perhaps what we seek for is not a specific feeling, but just a bit of any feeling now and then, so that we can praise ourselves for living a life free from spiritual barrenness. If it happens to be a sweet feeling, let’s savour it with a smile. If it happens to be a bitter feeling, we should still try to taste it, albeit with knitted brows, for it is a hundred times better than absence of any feeling, which is most unbearable and should be avoided by all means.

Therefore, being sentimental is better than apathetic, having a warm dream is better than becoming a living corpse, drinking a bitter cup is better than a cup of insipid water, having a good cry is better than being insensitive to both sorrow and happiness. This does not mean, however, that happiness and optimism are no good, healthy wakefulness is undesirable, sweets of life are evil and hearty laughter is vicious. What I mean here is that susceptibility is always preferable to insensibility.

Hence, the insects’s song is something we always long for. In addition to the above-mentioned toilers, old forgotten scholars, lonely travellers and solitary women, innumerable other people are equally susceptible. With a chill in the air, who wouldn’t think of the beautiful music of autumn?

But none of it exits. Absolutely none! The courtyard is as still as the bottom of a well, the cement ground is leaden. Insects have long been keeping clear of a place like this. Without their wings and legs, we cannot fly or leap as they do. We have to stick to this place. How pregnant with meaning are the two expressions — “the bottom of a well” and “leaden”!